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How LAN Switches Work

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Packet-switching

LAN switches rely on packet-switching. The switch establishes a connection between two segments just long enough to send the current packet. Incoming packets (part of an Ethernet frame) are saved to a temporary memory area (buffer); the MAC address contained in the frame’s header is read and then compared to a list of addresses maintained in the switch’s lookup table. In an Ethernet-based LAN, an Ethernet frame contains a normal packet as the payload of the frame, with a special header that includes the MAC address information for the source and destination of the packet.

Packet-based switches use one of three methods for routing traffic:

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  • Cut-through
  • Store-and-forward
  • Fragment-free

Cut-through switches read the MAC address as soon as a packet is detected by the switch. After storing the 6 bytes that make up the address information, they immediately begin sending the packet to the destination node, even as the rest of the packet is coming into the switch.

A switch using store-and-forward will save the entire packet to the buffer and check it for CRC errors or other problems before sending. If the packet has an error, it is discarded. Otherwise, the switch looks up the MAC address and sends the packet on to the destination node. Many switches combine the two methods, using cut-through until a certain error level is reached and then changing over to store-and-forward. Very few switches are strictly cut-through, since this provides no error correction.

A less common method is fragment-free. It works like cut-through except that it stores the first 64 bytes of the packet before sending it on. The reason for this is that most errors, and all collisions, occur during the initial 64 bytes of a packet.

How LAN Switches Work

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Routers and Switches

The OSI Reference Model consists of seven layers that build from the wire (Physical) to the software (Application).

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You can see that a switch has the potential to radically change the way nodes communicate with each other. But you may be wondering what makes it different from a router. Switches usually work at Layer 2 (Data or Datalink) of the OSI Reference Model, using MAC addresses, while routers work at Layer 3 (Network) with Layer 3 addresses (IP, IPX or Appletalk, depending on which Layer 3 protocols are being used). The algorithm that switches use to decide how to forward packets is different from the algorithms used by routers to forward packets.

One of these differences in the algorithms between switches and routers is how broadcasts are handled. On any network, the concept of a broadcast packet is vital to the operability of a network. Whenever a device needs to send out information but doesn’t know who it should send it to, it sends out a broadcast. For example, every time a new computer or other device comes on to the network, it sends out a broadcast packet to announce its presence. The other nodes (such as a domain server) can add the computer to their browser list (kind of like an address directory) and communicate directly with that computer from that point on. Broadcasts are used any time a device needs to make an announcement to the rest of the network or is unsure of who the recipient of the information should be.

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A hub or a switch will pass along any broadcast packets they receive to all the other segments in the broadcast domain, but a router will not. Think about our four-way intersection again: All of the traffic passed through the intersection no matter where it was going. Now imagine that this intersection is at an international border. To pass through the intersection, you must provide the border guard with the specific address that you are going to. If you don’t have a specific destination, then the guard will not let you pass. A router works like this. Without the specific address of another device, it will not let the data packet through. This is a good thing for keeping networks separate from each other, but not so good when you want to talk between different parts of the same network. This is where switches come in.

How LAN Switches Work

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Mixed Networks

A mixed network with two switches and three hubs

Most networks are not fully switched because of the costs incurred in replacing all of the hubs with switches.

Instead, a combination of switches and hubs are used to create an efficient yet cost-effective network. For example, a company may have hubs connecting the computers in each department and then a switch connecting all of the department-level hubs.

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How LAN Switches Work

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Fully Switched Networks

An example of a network using a switch

Image courtesy Cisco Networks

In a fully switched network, switches replace all the hubs of an Ethernet network with a dedicated segment for every node. These segments connect to a switch, which supports multiple dedicated segments (sometimes in the hundreds). Since the only devices on each segment are the switch and the node, the switch picks up every transmission before it reaches another node. The switch then forwards the frame over the appropriate segment. Since any segment contains only a single node, the frame only reaches the intended recipient. This allows many conversations to occur simultaneously on a switched network.

Switching allows a network to maintain full-duplex Ethernet. Before switching, Ethernet was half-duplex, which means that data could be transmitted in only one direction at a time. In a fully switched network, each node communicates only with the switch, not directly with other nodes. Information can travel from node to switch and from switch to node simultaneously.

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Fully switched networks employ either twisted-pair or fiber-optic cabling, both of which use separate conductors for sending and receiving data. In this type of environment, Ethernet nodes can forgo the collision detection process and transmit at will, since they are the only potential devices that can access the medium. In other words, traffic flowing in each direction has a lane to itself. This allows nodes to transmit to the switch as the switch transmits to them — it’s a collision-free environment. Transmitting in both directions can effectively double the apparent speed of the network when two nodes are exchanging information. If the speed of the network is 10 Mbps, then each node can transmit simultaneously at 10 Mbps.

How LAN Switches Work

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The Solution: Adding Switches

Imagine that each vehicle is a packet of data waiting for an opportunity to continue on its trip.

Think of a hub as a four-way intersection where everyone has to stop. If more than one car reaches the intersection at the same time, they have to wait for their turn to proceed.

Now imagine what this would be like with a dozen or even a hundred roads intersecting at a single point. The amount of waiting and the potential for a collision increases significantly. But wouldn’t it be amazing if you could take an exit ramp from any one of those roads to the road of your choosing? That is exactly what a switch does for network traffic. A switch is like a cloverleaf intersection — each car can take an exit ramp to get to its destination without having to stop and wait for other traffic to go by.

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A vital difference between a hub and a switch is that all the nodes connected to a hub share the bandwidth among themselves, while a device connected to a switch port has the full bandwidth all to itself. For example, if 10 nodes are communicating using a hub on a 10-Mbps network, then each node may only get a portion of the 10 Mbps if other nodes on the hub want to communicate as well. But with a switch, each node could possibly communicate at the full 10 Mbps. Think about our road analogy. If all of the traffic is coming to a common intersection, then each car it has to share that intersection with every other car. But a cloverleaf allows all of the traffic to continue at full speed from one road to the next.

How LAN Switches Work

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The Problem: Traffic

In the most basic type of network found today, nodes are simply connected together using hubs. As a network grows, there are some potential problems with this configuration:

  • Scalability – In a hub network, limited shared bandwidth makes it difficult to accommodate significant growth without sacrificing performance. Applications today need more bandwidth than ever before. Quite often, the entire network must be redesigned periodically to accommodate growth.
  • Latency – This is the amount of time that it takes a packet to get to its destination. Since each node in a hub-based network has to wait for an opportunity to transmit in order to avoid collisions, the latency can increase significantly as you add more nodes. Or, if someone is transmitting a large file across the network, then all of the other nodes have to wait for an opportunity to send their own packets. You have probably seen this before at work — you try to access a server or the Internet and suddenly everything slows down to a crawl.
  • Network failure – In a typical network, one device on a hub can cause problems for other devices attached to the hub due to incorrect speed settings (100 Mbps on a 10-Mbps hub) or excessive broadcasts. Switches can be configured to limit broadcast levels.
  • Collisions – Ethernet uses a process called CSMA/CD (Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Detection) to communicate across the network. Under CSMA/CD, a node will not send out a packet unless the network is clear of traffic. If two nodes send out packets at the same time, a collision occurs and the packets are lost. Then both nodes wait a random amount of time and retransmit the packets. Any part of the network where there is a possibility that packets from two or more nodes will interfere with each other is considered to be part of the same collision domain. A network with a large number of nodes on the same segment will often have a lot of collisions and therefore a large collision domain.

While hubs provide an easy way to scale up and shorten the distance that the packets must travel to get from one node to another, they do not break up the actual network into discrete segments. That is where switches come in. In the next section, you’ll find out how switches assist in directing network traffic.

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How LAN Switches Work

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Network Topologies

Bus network topology

Some of the most common topologies in use today include:

Star network topology

A typical star bus network

  • Bus – Each node is daisy-chained (connected one right after the other) along the same backbone, similar to Christmas lights. Information sent from a node travels along the backbone until it reaches its destination node. Each end of a bus network must be terminated with a resistor to keep the signal that is sent by a node across the network from bouncing back when it reaches the end of the cable.
  • Ring – Like a bus network, rings have the nodes daisy-chained. The difference is that the end of the network comes back around to the first node, creating a complete circuit. In a ring network, each node takes a turn sending and receiving information through the use of a token. The token, along with any data, is sent from the first node to the second node, which extracts the data addressed to it and adds any data it wishes to send. Then, the second node passes the token and data to the third node, and so on until it comes back around to the first node again. Only the node with the token is allowed to send data. All other nodes must wait for the token to come to them.
  • Star – In a star network, each node is connected to a central device called a hub. The hub takes a signal that comes from any node and passes it along to all the other nodes in the network. A hub does not perform any type of filtering or routing of the data. It is simply a junction that joins all the different nodes together.
  • Star bus – Probably the most common network topology in use today, star bus combines elements of the star and bus topologies to create a versatile network environment. Nodes in particular areas are connected to hubs (creating stars), and the hubs are connected together along the network backbone (like a bus network). Quite often, stars are nested within stars, as seen in the example below:

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How LAN Switches Work

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Networking Basics

Here are some of the fundamental parts of a network:

  • Network – A network is a group of computers connected together in a way that allows information to be exchanged between the computers.
  • Node – A node is anything that is connected to the network. While a node is typically a computer, it can also be something like a printer or CD-ROM tower.
  • Segment – A segment is any portion of a network that is separated, by a switch, bridge or router, from other parts of the network.
  • Backbone – The backbone is the main cabling of a network that all of the segments connect to. Typically, the backbone is capable of carrying more information than the individual segments. For example, each segment may have a transfer rate of 10 Mbps (megabits per second), while the backbone may operate at 100 Mbps.
  • Topology – Topology is the way that each node is physically connected to the network (more on this in the next section).
  • Local Area Network (LAN) – A LAN is a network of computers that are in the same general physical location, usually within a building or a campus. If the computers are far apart (such as across town or in different cities), then a Wide Area Network (WAN) is typically used.
  • Network Interface Card (NIC) – Every computer (and most other devices) is connected to a network through an NIC. In most desktop computers, this is an Ethernet card (normally 10 or 100 Mbps) that is plugged into a slot on the computer’s motherboard.
  • Media Access Control (MAC) address – This is the physical address of any device — such as the NIC in a computer — on the network. The MAC address, which is made up of two equal parts, is 6 bytes long. The first 3 bytes identify the company that made the NIC. The second 3 bytes are the serial number of the NIC itself.
  • Unicast – A unicast is a transmission from one node addressed specifically to another node.
  • Multicast – In a multicast, a node sends a packet addressed to a special group address. Devices that are interested in this group register to receive packets addressed to the group. An example might be a Cisco router sending out an update to all of the other Cisco routers.
  • Broadcast – In a broadcast, a node sends out a packet that is intended for transmission to all other nodes on the network.

On the next page, we’ll discuss some of the most common network topologies.

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How LAN Switches Work

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Illustration of a Cisco Catalyst switch. 

If you have read other HowStuffWorks articles on networking or the Internet, then you know that a typical network consists of:

  • nodes (computers)
  • a connecting medium (wired or wireless)
  • specialized network equipment like routers or hubs.

In the case of the Internet, all of these pieces work together to allow your computer to send information to another computer that could be on the other side of the world!

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­Switches are another fundamental part of many networks because they speed things up. Switches allow different nodes (a network connection point, typically a computer) of a network to communicate directly with one another in a smooth and efficient manner.

­There are many different types of switches and networks. Switches that provide a separate connection for each node in a company’s internal network are called LAN switches. Essentially, a LAN switch creates a series of instant networks that contain only the two devices communicating with each other at that particular moment. In this article, we will focus on Ethernet networks that use LAN switches. You will learn what a LAN switch is and how transparent bridging works, as well as about VLANs, trunking and spanning trees.

 

How OSI Works

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Protocol Stacks

A protocol stack is a group of protocols that all work together to allow software or hardware to perform a function. The TCP/IP protocol stack is a good example. It uses four layers that map to the OSI model as follows:

  • Layer 1: Network Interface – This layer combines the Physical and Data layers and routes the data between devices on the same network. It also manages the exchange of data between the network and other devices.
  • Layer 2: Internet – This layer corresponds to the Network layer. The Internet Protocol (IP) uses the IP address, consisting of a Network Identifier and a Host Identifier, to determine the address of the device it is communicating with.
  • Layer 3: Transport – Corresponding to the OSI Transport layer, this is the part of the protocol stack where the Transport Control Protocol (TCP) can be found. TCP works by asking another device on the network if it is willing to accept information from the local device.
  • Layer 4: Application – Layer 4 combines the Session, Presentation and Application layers of the OSI model. Protocols for specific functions such as e-mail (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, SMTP) and file transfer (File Transfer Protocol, FTP) reside at this level.

As you can see, it is not necessary to develop a separate layer for each and every function outlined in the OSI Reference Model. But developers are able to ensure that a certain level of compatibility is maintained by following the general guidelines provided by the model.

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For more information on OSI and related topics, check out the links on the next page.